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“Photo 11” keeps things simple. Anannual regional show, it doesn’t couch itself in some pretentious title (Intimate Landscape! Hunters and Gatherers!). It’s just photography. Good photography, too, even though its 18 artists’ subjects are typical of contemporary photography shows: high-chroma building facades, landscapes of urban infrastructure, remains of dying towns, full-body portraiture, close-ups of clouds, foreign locales, shots of homesy Americana. At least there are no sunsets or flora that look like genitals.
So what’s the big deal? With its wide scope and themeless presentation, the show has the unintended consequence of saying something about its medium, and it bears that weight decently.
Photography, once described as democratic—anyone could buy a camera—is now more or less authoritarian: When we purchase a phone, the camera is forced upon us. We can make art, real art, with an iPhone. We can easily glimpse a stranger’s diet on Flickr or see his voyeuristic fetish for urban decay on Instagram. But “Photo 11” is a reminder that attention to the craft and skillful execution are what separate making a photograph from taking a picture.
By frequently finding beauty within the mundane—and by containing a hint of nostalgia—the works in “Photo 11” make you think about what they are not: Flickr sets, which at their worst document commonplace things as though they were Post-tt notes declaring, “I was here.”
Sofia Silva, Caitlin Teal Price, and D.B. Stovall all photograph vacant spaces, but the works don’t feel as if they were captured while simply passing through. For Silva, who photographs at night, time is an occupational hazard. The rich blacks and variety in tone suggest she took time to get to know that drive-through window. In Stovall’s photographs of small businesses, time was essential to get retina-burning colors (though some of that time might have been spent in Photoshop). But he doesn’t simply punch up one area: Even the dark gray of the asphalt beneath a “Kane Is Able” semi-trailer is profoundly colorful. The same goes for Price’s work. Its composition, where its shadows fall, and its colors—another rich variety of gray—make her overpass remarkable.
The show also affirms a technological truth: The silver gelatin print is dead. Forty-three of the 47 images in the show are digital prints, undoubtedly the result of plummeting prices of megapixels and inkjet printing in the last decade. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see as few silver gelatin prints (two) as ambrotypes, a far more archaic method.
In 20 years, will audiences find something as enigmatic in the process of developing silver gelatin as they might with the soft focus and hard shadows of Daniel Afzal’s ambrotype portrait of “Andrea”? Maybe. But Jordan Swartz’s digital prints, from the series “destination: anywhere,” are also a bit blurry, and he got a prize. Regardless of the technology, it seems photographers are still content to mine the nostalgic from the beautiful, pixels be damned.